“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” O’Donnell asked him.
When Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, O’Donnell asked: “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?”
In O’Donnell’s (mild) defense, it’s a common refrain among those pushing for more inclusiveness for religion in public life that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not actually contained in the Constitution. The origin of the phrase is believed to be this 1802 letter penned by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury (CT) Baptist association.
I think it’s possible that O’Donnell was trying to make that point here. It’s a tenuous point, at best, and so mine is not much of a defense of her. But it would surprise me if she blanked entirely on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Late Update: Video of the debate is after the jump:
The key exchanges are at the 2:37 mark, 2:50 mark, 6:17 mark, and the 7:00 mark. I don’t know for sure what she was thinking, but I think a fair rendering of those exchanges is that she was trotting out the old religious conservative canard that because the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution it’s not due the level of deference we give to the concept. It’s a largely boneheaded argument, so it doesn’t get her off the hook. But I think that’s the point she was trying to make. She was dog-whistling to conservatives, not demonstrating quite as woeful an ignorance of the Constitution as the audience and the initial reports seemed to think.
David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.